Houston police and federal immigration authorities rescued 108 people held against their will for several days in a squalid suspected stash house in south Houston, officials said Wednesday.
The 93 males and 15 females, including 17 children, came from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, authorities said. It was still being determined how they ended up locked in the small, single-story house with one bathroom, no hot water and very little food, officials told The Times.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which described the rescue as the region's largest such operation in at least five years, arrested five men on suspicion of running a smuggling ring, agency spokesman Gregory Palemore said. They had not yet been formally charged.
Police started watching the house about 10 a.m. Wednesday, Houston police spokesman John Cannon said. They were drawn there by a frantic mother who called police Tuesday evening, saying that suspected kidnappers had ordered her to pay a ransom for her 24-year-old daughter and her 7-year-old-girl and 5-year-old boy. When the kidnappers failed to show up for the scheduled exchange in north Houston, the woman called for help.
Cannon declined to say how police connected the tip to the house. The caller's three family members were among those found inside.
Two of the suspects were arrested as they attempted to drive away from the house Wednesday morning. Guns and "paper indicating illegal activity" were found in the car, Cannon said, which gave officers reason to search the residence.
"They saw dozens and dozens of people in a very tight residence, cramped in like you would normally see animals," Cannon said. "They were hungry and tired."
The three other suspects were detained as they tried to run away. Cannon described them as core leaders who appeared to have been staying in a more well-kept bedroom with a refrigerator, a mattress on the floor and weapons.
The children and adults had been staying in a cordoned area of the approximately 2,200-square foot house, with boarded windows and two dead-bolted doors that opened only from the outside. The single toilet didn't always flush properly, Cannon said.
Video shot from news helicopters after the raid shows men, women and children sitting in small groups on the driveway of the ramshackle property as law enforcement officers mill about.
One woman said she had been stuck inside for 15 days and many others said they had been there since the weekend, Cannon said. A pregnant woman who felt ill was hospitalized. Another individual was also taken to a hospital for an unknown condition, Palemore said.
Authorities plan to interview, fingerprint, medically examine and provide a meal to the people found at the home. They were being held at an immigration detention facility and could face deportation.
"The scope of how long it has been operating will be investigated by ICE because of the magnitude of this," Cannon said. "The officers were very surprised by the conditions and the number of people inside."
Outside the house, officers found hundreds of chickens that may have been for cock-fighting, Cannon said.
The house, on Alameda School Road, is one of only a few in the mostly industrial area near the intersection of the Sam Houston Tollway and the South Freeway.